By D. Goleman, P. Kaufman, published on March 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 20, 2012
Has this ever happened to you? You're out for a jog, completely relaxed, your mind a pleasant blank. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you've been mulling over for weeks pops into your head. You can't help but wonder why you didn't think of it before.
In such moments you've made contact with the creative spirit, that elusive muse of good—and sometimes great—ideas. Yet it is more than an occasional insight. When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.
That flash of inspiration is the final moment of a process marked by distinctive stages—the basic steps in creative problem-solving. The first stage is preparation, when you search out any information that might be relevant. It's when you let your imagination roam free. Being receptive, being able to listen openly and well, is a crucial skill here.
That's easier said than done. We are used to our mundane way of thinking about solutions. Psychologists call this "functional fixedness." We see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Another barrier is self-censorship, that inner voice of judgment that confines our creative spirit within the boundaries of what we deem acceptable. It's the voice that whispers to you, "They'll think I'm foolish," or "That will never work." But we can learn to recognize this voice or judgment and have the courage to discount its destructive advice.
Once you have mulled over all the relevant pieces and pushed your rational mind to the limits, you can let the problem simmer. This is the incubation stage, when you digest all you have gathered. It's a stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in the unconscious. As the saying goes, "You sleep on it."
The unconscious mind is far more suited to creative insight than the conscious mind. Ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations. It is also the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can't readily call into awareness. Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words, including the rich feelings and deep imagery of the senses.
We are more open to insights from the unconscious mind when we are not thinking of anything in particular. That is why daydreams are so useful in the quest for creativity. Anytime you can just daydream and relax is useful in the creative process: a shower, long drives, a quiet walk. For example, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of the Atari company, got the inspiration for what became a best-selling video game while idly flicking sand on a beach.
With luck, immersion and daydreaming lead to illumination, when all of a sudden the answer comes to you as if from nowhere. This is the popular stage—the one that usually gets all the glory and attention, the moment that people sweat and long for, the feeling "This is it!" But the thought alone is still not a creative act. The final stage is translation, when you take your insight and transform it into action; it becomes useful to you and others.
"The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a fad."— President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.
Our lives can be filled with creative moments, whatever we do, as long as we're flexible and open to new possibilities—willing to push beyond routine. The everyday expression of creativity often takes the form of trying out a new approach to a familiar dilemma. Yet half the world still thinks of creativity as a mysterious quality that the other half has. A good deal of research suggests, however, that everyone is capable of tapping into his or her creative spirit. We don't just mean getting better ideas; we're talking about a kind of general awareness that leads to greater enjoyment of your work and the people in your life: a spirit that can improve collaboration and communication with others.
Many of us do not see ourselves as being creative, because we don't have much of an audience for what we do. In fact, we focus too much on "Big C" creativity—the glamorous achievements of geniuses—and overlook the ways each of us displays flair and imagination in our own lives.
"We've become narrow in the way we think about creativity," observes Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Brandeis University. "We tend to think of it as rarefied: artists, musicians, poets. But the cook in her kitchen is showing creativity when she invents a variation on a recipe."
Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, believes that what is true about Big C creators holds for the rest of us. "Every person has certain areas in which he or she has a special interest," he says. "It could be the way they teach a lesson or sell something. After a while they get to be as good as anybody."
There are others, however, for whom simply being good at something is not enough—they feel a need to be creative. "So what they do," Gardner explains, "is set small challenges for themselves, like making a meal a little differently from the way they've made it until now. This isn't going to get you into the encyclopedia. You're not going to change the way cooking will be done in the future. But you're going beyond the routine and conventional, and it gives you a kind of pleasure that is quite analogous to what the Big C creative individuals get."
The more you can experience your own originality, the more confidence you get, the greater the probability that you'll be creative in the future. The idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to your own creativity. Eventually, you will come to place greater trust in it and instinctively turn to it when you are confronted with problems.
The ability to see things in a fresh way is vital to the creative process, and that ability rests on the willingness to question any and all assumptions. This is personified by Paul MacCready, one of America's most prolific inventors. His best-known accomplishment is the invention of the Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered airplane to fly a mile.
Says MacCready: "To design the Condor, I had to pretend I'd never seen an airplane before. If you have too much knowledge of what didn't work in the past and what you think can't work, then you just don't try as many things. The Condor needed to be light, and the only way I knew I had the absolute minimum weight was if it broke occasionally. If it broke about every 25th flight, that was just right. And that's the way we designed it. Now, that's a terrible way to make an ordinary airplane, but it was very good for this particular vehicle. Breaking wasn't a failure; it was a success."
In creative problem-solving, a mistake is an experiment to learn from, valuable information about what to try next. People often pack in their efforts because they are afraid of making mistakes, which can be embarrassing, even humiliating. But if you take no chances and make no mistakes, you fail to learn, let alone do anything unusual or innovative.
Research suggests that creative people make more mistakes than their less imaginative peers. They are less proficient—it's just that they make more attempts than most others. They spin out more ideas, come up with more possibilities, generate more schemes. They win some; they lose some.
While creativity takes hard work, the work goes more smoothly if you take it lightly. Humor greases the wheels of creativity. When you're joking around, you're freer to consider any possibility—after all, you're only kidding. Having fun helps you disarm the inner censor that all too quickly condemns your ideas as ludicrous.
This is why in brainstorming sessions the operative rule is that anything goes and no one is allowed to dismiss an idea as too absurd. People are free to generate as many ideas as they can manage to think of, no matter how wild they seem. In one of those ideas, there is often the seed that can eventually grow into an innovative solution.
Researchers report that when teams of people are working together on a problem, those groups that laugh most readily and most often are more creative and productive than their more dour and decorous counterparts. Joking around makes good sense: Playfulness is itself a creative state.
When creativity is in full fire, people can experience what athletes and performers call the "white moment." Everything clicks. Your skills are so perfectly suited to the challenge that you seem to blend with it. Everything feels harmonious, unified, and effortless.
That white moment is what psychologists call "flow." In flow, people are at their peak. Flow can happen in any domain of activity. The one requirement is that your skills so perfectly match the demands of the moment that all self-consciousness disappears. If your skills are not up to the challenge, you experience anxiety; if your skills are too great, you experience boredom.
When skills and challenge match, then flow is most likely to emerge. At that instant, attention is fully focused on the task at hand. One sign of this complete absorption is that time seems to pass much more quickly—or much more slowly. People are so attuned to what they're doing, they're oblivious to any distractions.
Neurological studies of people in flow show that the brain expends less energy than when they are wrestling with a problem. One reason seems to be that the parts of the brain most relevant for the task at hand are most active, and those that are irrelevant are relatively quiet. By contrast, when one is in a state of anxiety or confusion, there is no such distinction in activity levels between parts of the brain.
Flow states often occur in sports, especially among the best athletes. In his biography, basketball star Bill Russell describes those moments as ones of a nearly supernatural intuition: "It was almost as though we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, 'It's coming there!'—except that I knew everything would change if I did."
While in a flow state, people lose all self-consciousness. The Zen idea of no-mind is similar: a state of complete absorption is what one is doing. Says Kenneth Kraft, a Buddhist scholar at Lehigh University who has spent many years in Japan, "In Zen the word 'mind' is also a symbol for the consciousness of the universe itself. In fact, the mind of the individual and the mind of the universe are regarded ultimately as one. So by emptying oneself of one's smaller, individual mind, and by losing the intense self-consciousness, we are able to tap into this larger, more creative mind.
The idea of merging with the activity at hand, which is basic to flow, is intrinsic to Zen. "It's taught in Zen that one performs an action so completely that one loses oneself in the doing of it," Kraft explains. "A master calligrapher, for example, is working in a no-minded way."
No-mindedness is not unconsciousness, some kind of vague spaciness. On the contrary, it is a precise awareness during which one is undisturbed by the mind's usual distracting inner chatter. Says Kraft, "No-mindedness means not to have the mind filled with random thoughts like, 'Does this calligraphy look right? Should that stroke go there or here?' It's just doing. Just the stroke."
In a profound sense, all of our creative acts express who we are at that moment. In his study of people who shaped the 20th century with their creative genius, Howard Gardner found that although each of them had reached the limits of their domain, they shared what seems to have been a childlike freshness in their approach to their work. "I think every person—whether they are a Big C creative individual or a little c—is drawing not just on their knowledge and mastery, but drawing from childhood."
"You have to have a coyote inside of you, and you have to get it out."— Chuck Jones, the animator who created Wile E. Coyote, on how to draw one.
Creativity takes root in childhood. For the child, life is a creative adventure. The most basic explorations of a child's world are creative exercises in problem-solving. They begin a lifelong process of inventing themselves. In this sense, every child reinvents language, walking, love.
"The kernel of creativity," says psychologist Teresa Amabile, "is there in the infant: the desire and drive to explore, to find out about things, to try things out, to experiment with different ways of handling things and looking at things. As they grow older, children begin to create entire universes of reality in their play."
Our experience of creativity in childhood shapes much of what we do in adulthood, from work to family life. But if creativity is a child's natural state, what happens on the way to adulthood? The psychological pressures that inhibit a child's creativity occur early in life. Parents can encourage or suppress the creativity of their children in the home environment and by what they demand of schools. Most children in preschool, kindergarten—even in the first grade—love being in school. They are excited about exploring and learning. But by the time they are in the third or fourth grade, many don't like school, let alone have any sense of pleasure in their own creativity.
Amabile's research has identified the main creativity killers:
One of the greatest creativity killers, however, is more subtle and so deeply rooted in our culture that it is hardly noticed. It has to do with time.
Children more naturally than adults enter that ultimate state of creativity called flow. In flow, time does not matter; there is only the timeless moment at hand. It is a state that is more comfortable for children than adults, who are more conscious of the passage of time.
"One ingredient of creativity is open-ended time," says Ann Lewan, a director of the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, D.C. "Children have the capacity to get lost in whatever they're doing in a way that is much harder for an adult. They need the opportunity to follow their natural inclinations, their own particular talents, to go wherever their proclivities lead them."
Unfortunately, children are interrupted, torn out of their deep concentration. Their desire to work through something is frustrated. "We live in such a hurry-up way, so again and again children are stopped in the middle of things they love to do," Lewan says. "They are scheduled. That, more than anything, will stifle creativity."
Creativity flourishes when things are done for enjoyment. When children learn a creative form, preserving the joy matters as much—if not more—than "getting it right." What matters is the pleasure, not perfection.
A stimulating physical environment is part of the equation. So are specific attitudes that also foster the creative spirit in the young. In creative families, there is a different feeling in the air; there's more breathing space. The parents of creative children give them what may seem to be a surprising amount of freedom.
That is not an easy lesson for many parents. "The main thing I've learned from my own daughter, Kristene," says Amabile, "is not to overcontrol, and how important it is as a parent to give her freedom and space. When she was really little, I'd see her playing with a new toy or a game. And she'd be trying to put something together or do something in a way that I knew was wrong; it wasn't the way the game was 'supposed' to be put together. And I'd rush in and say, 'No, no, honey, let me show you how to do it.' And as soon as I did that, she'd lose interest.
"I realized that she was discovering new ways of playing with games and toys. Maybe these weren't the way they were intended to be played with. But she was being creative."
When parents are supportive of their children's creativity, they will discover what most psychologists are now confirming: Most children have a natural talent for a particular activity. By letting a child explore a range of activities, budding talents are more likely to emerge, The essentials of children's creativity—especially the importance of finding what they're excited about, mastering the skills necessary to realize that intelligence, and collaborating with others—are prerequisites for creativity in adult life. Perhaps nowhere is this more crucial than in the work we do.
"People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."— Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, commenting on television in 1946.
The need for creativity is changing how the workplace is organized and what people do. These changes center on the use and interpretation of information: the basis for ideas. A company's future depends upon how well it acquires, interprets, and acts upon information. Today the spread of information technologies—including computers and data bases—is bringing about a sea of change in the business world.
Yet how workers interpret that information is as important as the information itself. Interpretation is, in fact, a creative act. But the degree of creativity is influenced by our feelings: our belief that we can speak without fear of retribution, our feeling of being trusted by others, a confidence in our own intuition. All effect how we respond to the information before us.
There are many ways in which the creative spirit can find expression in the workplace: innovations in management, improvements in distribution methods, or new ideas for financing a business. Creative ideas can also be used to strengthen the organization itself by increasing the initiative of workers. One such innovation is the elimination of restrictive job descriptions that put workers in "boxes" and limit their performance. Another idea is to share all financial information with all of the employees. Elimination of traditional corporate secrets helps workers to understand the larger reality of the business and encourages them to generate ideas of their own to reduce costs and increase revenues.
Since creative problem-solving requires the psychological commitment of the whole person, the modern workplace must undergo vital changes. From the efforts of pioneering companies around the world, a set of key ideas are emerging that can change the psychology of the workplace.
This suggests that large corporations be broken into smaller, semiautonomous units. An advocate of this approach is Jim Collins, a lecturer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. "As our society has evolved from small organizations to large ones," he says, "it has stifled innovation. Of course, there are economies in doing things on a mass scale. But you lose one thing: that creative tip. Massiveness breeds conformity."
The value of collaboration is a hard lesson to learn in cultures like ours, where the trailblazing lone hero has long been idolized, and where the goals of the individual are so often placed over those of the group. But even those working alone can learn the advantages of teamwork.
Operating a business in the global arena demands innovative ways of understanding and responding to the needs of people. Business people who know how to listen to their customers rather than just study figures and statistics will have a splendid future, and those who are able to draw on their intuition will emerge as natural leaders in this new business environment.
Many workers are no longer in search of a job that is simply a source of wealth, status, and power, but rather one that—apart from assuring a decent living—offers a sense of meaning and a platform for individual creativity. Production as an end itself satisfies neither of those desires.
But there is a growing gap between what many businesses see as their purpose and what more and more people want in their work. The larger that gap, the more alienated people feel from their work and the less of their creative energy is available. If a business fails to change the environment for its workers, it may find it difficult to get or keep the best people.
Anita Roddick, founder and president of the Body Shop International, puts it this way: "I don't want our success to be measured only by financial yardsticks. What I want to be celebrated for is how good we are to our employees and our community. It's a different bottom line."
From the Creative Spirit, by Daniel Golemen, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, copyright (c) 1992 (Dutton).
So often we go through our days on automatic pilot, but lacking the Zen inner awareness. To a certain degree, we like people and situations to be predictable; we enjoy the habitual and tend to avoid surprises. But there is a downside to routine: We can easily become fixed in our ways of seeing. Our expectation of how things are supposed to be replaces our capacity to perceive. This can range from not seeing the new color or cut of your partner's hair to not seeing a new approach to your work.
Here are two ideas for refocusing your perceptions and deepening your creative capacity:
What we see every day becomes ordinary to us. People, sights, sounds, and smells seem to disappear from our awareness. They lose their distinctiveness. One way of dealing with this is to invent a brand-new pattern, a fresh way of seeing the commonplace.
This technique of taking things out of their ordinary context and creating a new pattern for them is a way of making the familiar strange and opening them to a fresh and creative approach.
Brain specialists tell us that the brain-wave pattern of a preadolescent child in the waking state is rich in theta waves. These waves are much rarer in adults, occurring most frequently during the hypnagogic state—a twilight zone bordering on sleep, where dreams and reality mix.
Thus a child's waking consciousness is comparable to a state of mind adults know mainly during these dreamlike moments as they fall asleep. This may be one reason a child's reality naturally embraces the zany and the bizarre, the silly and the terrifying. A child's waking awareness is more open to fresh perceptions and wild ideas.
With puberty, the child's brain changes to resemble an adult's. The theta brain waves and the wildly creative flair of the child begin to fade. Some people, however, continue to tap the richness of theta states later in life. Thomas Edison put the hypnagogic state to work when he was an adult. He had an unusual technique for doing this: He would doze off in a chair with his arms and hands draped over the armrests. In each hand he held a ball bearing. Below each hand on the floor were two pie plates. When he drifted into the state between waking and sleeping, his hands would naturally relax and the ball bearings would drop on the plate. Awakened by the noise, Edison would immediately make notes on any ideas that had come to him.
When people reflect on those times when they have been most fully creative and expressive, they often describe it as a "letting-go" experience. It is at that point that creativity occurs.
It may be in doing vigorous exercise or in concentrating on some simple, repetitive task. It may be just as you are falling asleep, in dreams, or just as you are waking up. Many find that they routinely get a useful insight in the shower. Meditating, stretching, playing an instrument, dancing—these are other ways that people have of surrendering to their own creativity.
The following two approaches can also help move you from being stuck to letting go:
You have just let go. How did it feel?
Observe what you are experiencing as you let go of this mental obstacle.
Spalding Gray, writer
"I have a box beside my desk where I throw everything that's on my mind about issues I haven't solved. It's like my life puzzle. I just dump that box out and go through it and begin to make an outline. In that process I begin to work what I would call creatively. Or like a creative editor. What signals me that it's working is butterflies in my stomach. It's a feeling of being turned on. When I first started working that's how I knew that these stories were delightful, that they tickled me and would probably translate, although I was never worried about that.
"Creativity is mainly beginning to see the fabric of the structure, the structural fabric of the overall theme of what I'm talking about. It's looking a little bit more into the thematic center of it. It's looking into that and then shaping it so that it is a predominate feature. Almost like an obsession or something that is lighting like neon. The creative part is finding a structure and fabric that has resonance.
"My process differs because most of the creativity goes on publicly. I never pre-write the monologue. What happens is that I make public discoveries. And the audience sees that I make that discovery. The creative part of things is the part you have the least control over. Always, I find I'm smarter and more creative publicly, in front of people. The monologue really grows and has its life. There are public discoveries because I'm forgetting myself in front of the people.
"Creativity is a quick, clear message that translates into understated art that presumes and assumes nothing of another person's learning or intellect."
Steve Dunleavy, reporter
"Creative people are committed to risk. The creative person always walks two steps into the darkness. Everybody can see what's in the light... the real heroes delve in the dark."
Benny Golson, musician
"Creativity comes by breaking the rules, by saying that you're in love with the anarchist."
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop
"Creativity is cutting holes to see through."
Ally Sheedy, actor
"For me, the creative moment almost always occurs during a dream state. I wake up certain that I have created something but I am unaware of what it is at the time. The creation becomes realized during a later conscious state in its entirety. But I recognize it as the memory of an earlier idea."
John Waters, director
"The most important thing I think to get into a creative spirit is to make time every day to do it, so it becomes a ritual and a routine. I write everyday from exactly eight o'clock to noon. I have to create that order to be able to do it. But thinking it up certainly happens all the time. Sometimes it's like work for me so I carry little notebooks around. Generally I do it at the exact time everyday. But once I'm into it I even dream about it.
"It's not possible to pinpoint before I'm going to write something. I go out exploring horrible bars or different places, even though I'm not going to write about that. I have to go explore places so I purposely go to places I was always afraid to go.
"The creative spark is obsession that makes you go through the drudgery of writing. The most fun of every movie I've ever done is the moment you think it up. From then in it's downhill because you have to make it real. You have to deal with the real. As long as it's in your head, it's the most exciting, but it never gets better."